Why the pandemic drove Flight Centre further into voice of customer

When the pandemic upended the travel business, Flight Centre took it as a sign to move on long-held plans to overhaul its Voice of Customer program

Although Flight Centre had a number of Voice of Customer (VoC) programs operating around the world, the problem was they were operating on different platforms, which didn’t provide consistent insights.

“Comparability from program to program was somewhat challenging and we didn't have full global coverage on those programs,” Flight Centre Travel Group senior vice-president and head of global marketing operations, Chris Preston, told CMO. “We always had an ambition to create a globally consistent world class Voice of Customer program based on one platform. That was one of the key drivers of this new initiative.”  

Then there was another one: As a travel business, not surprisingly, the pandemic had a dramatic effect on business. “It was really significant for us, but also had a significant impact on our customers too. The way in which customers behaved and responded was rapidly changing,” said Preston.  

Flight Centre Travel Group wanted something sophisticated enough to handle global coverage and dynamic enough to stay in touch in real time with changing customer sentiment. It’s a brave company that invests at a time of unprecedented global travel shutdowns. And when it needed to dramatically lower its global cost base from $235 million a month to $65m.  

“We weren’t looking to find ways to spend money,” Preston commented. “It was a tactical investment to sharpen a strategic advantage, and a play for the longer term. We made a conscious decision through that period to invest in areas that we felt would provide us with a strong springboard for when we emerged from the from the pandemic.”  

Leaning into CX instincts  

Flight Centre has always identified itself as having a strong competitive advantage in customer experience thanks to the role its people and technology plays in enriching the experience. “We felt continuing to invest in that during this period of time we'd set ourselves up to continue that strong competitive differentiation,” Preston said.  

While the business itself had a deep understanding of the importance of customer engagement, with a rapidly changing environment, it needed to strengthen this memory muscle for the business. As Preston explained, from a customer-centricity perspective, Flight Centre had relied to a certain extent on the instinct of its people. The 40-year-old business had retained a lot of long tenured people who understood this dynamic.  

“But what happened, which was different, was we experienced rapid, dynamic change, and it became harder to predict. We needed to add an extra layer to that decision-making process,” he said.  

It’s also about bolstering the abilities of its people, not overriding them. “We don't see a program like this taking away the decision-making autonomy of our people. This program is adding an extra dimension so the instincts our people have to make decisions are stronger and better along the way,” Preston added.  

To really drive results, it was critical to align VoC with the business as opposed to a parallel or siloed project. “By that, I mean getting really strong executive buy-in for what you’re doing so the strategy being developed is factoring in this work as opposed to coming to the business and saying: ‘look what we've just uncovered’ which risks getting a barrier from the business,” Preston said.  

Opting to go with Qualtrics, the project had two important streams: Vendor selection and internal engagement. This meant working closely with the CEO as well as the CFO to fully understand the benefits that could flow from the project.  

“It was vital in helping them understand what we were doing, how we would measure that over time, and the return on investment,” Preston said.  

The co-design process  

The plan was to start with corporate brands, FCM and Corporate Traveller, utilising Qualtrics CustomerXM platform for an end-to-end view of the customer experience from consideration to renewal. The approach was to adopt a co-design process with Preston’s team, which owns the centre of excellence for the brand’s customer experience, together with the relevant leadership stakeholders and Qualtrics itself.  

The first step was to design a map of what Flight Centre ultimately wanted to achieve. Then having identified the areas to focus on in the first phase, the imperative was working closely with those stakeholders to build, not just surveys, but the process for triggering and initiating surveys, processes for managing responses, then the process for elevating insights that came out of it.  

“It was about being deeply embedded in the business and having a program that was built by the business effectively,” Preston explained.  

Kicking off in mid-2022, the deployment phase started with the first components going live followed by the final ones coming onstream towards the end of the year. Preston’s team mapped out the entire lifecycle of a customer then identified multiple points of interaction they wanted to have through that.  

“It meant having to be patient and identify the areas they thought were going to have the biggest impact on the business and customer experience and focusing on those to start with in order to get some data and learnings along the way,” he said.  

Managing expectations and setting realistic goals were some of the learnings throughout this early phase of the project so as not to bite off more than they could handle or oversell what could be realistically achieved in certain timeframes.  

On a technical level, one of the challenges was dealing with a very complex technology ecosystem, with lots of different moving parts. “It's taken a lot of effort from a lot of stakeholders within our business to do that,” Preston said.  

“There is also a change management activity that needs to happen across the business to allow us to leverage the insights.” For Flight Centre, this involved education and engagement about the platform and potential benefits to the business.  

Preston said the team will measure success around understanding the insights that have been uncovered and how they have been gone on to impact retention and loyalty of customers. As a result, one of the parallel initiatives in play is working with the business to help enable it to action the insights “because insights for the sake of insights are kind of pointless”.  

“We have mapped out a framework which shows where within the business the insights will have an influence and the measures and the KPIs that sit underneath those key business drivers,” Preston added.         

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